Stronghold of the Hittite Empire


On its site I sowed weeds. May the Storm God strike down anyone who becomes king after me and resettles Hattusa!


Hattusa was the royal capital of the Late Bronze Age kingdom of the Hittites. The history of this kingdom, called the Land of Hatti in ancient texts, spanned almost five centuries, from the 17th to the early 12th centuries BC. At its height, the Hittite empire extended across Anatolia and northern Syria to the Euphrates river and the western fringes of Mesopotamia. Hattusa, the heart of this empire, lay in north-central Anatolia, 160 km (100 miles) east of the modern Turkish capital Ankara, next to the village of Boghazköy (Boghazkale). Covering an area of more than 185 ha (457 acres) at the peak of its development, Hattusa became one of the greatest urban centres of the ancient Near East.

An earlier settlement on the site had been destroyed in the middle of the 18th century BC by a king called Anitta, who had declared the site accursed. In defiance of the curse, however, Hattusili, one of the first Hittite kings, refounded the city and built a palace on its acropolis. This natural outcrop of rock flanked by deep gorges, now called Büyükkale, was virtually impregnable from the north. But the new city lacked adequate defences in the south, and was to remain vulnerable to enemy attack until a wall, 8 m (26 ft) thick, was built around it two centuries later. Even then it survived only a few decades before it was stormed, plundered and put to the torch by hostile forces who had launched attacks from all directions on the Hittites’ homeland territories. In what scholars refer to as the ‘concentric invasions’, the kingdom itself was brought to the brink of annihilation some time during the first half of the 14th century BC.

Eventually the occupation forces were driven from the land, thanks mainly to the military genius of a certain Suppiluliuma, at that time still a prince but later to become one of the greatest of all Hittite kings (r. c. 1350–1322 BC). The task of rebuilding the capital began, and was to continue until the final collapse of the Hittite kingdom almost two centuries later. The city was massively expanded to the south, more than doubling its original size. New fortifications were built, extending over a distance of 5 km (3 miles), their main feature a great casemate wall erected on top of an earth rampart and punctuated by towers at 20-m (66-ft) intervals along its length. Before it was a second curtain wall – also with towers, which were built in the intervals between those of the main wall. Access to the city was provided by a number of gateways, the most impressive being decorated with monumental relief sculptures, which have since given them their evocative names: the Sphinx, Lion and Warrior-God (or King’s) gates.

View of the stronghold of Hattusa on its rocky outcrop, with the royal acropolis at its furthest point.

© Hans P. Szyszka/Novarc Images/agefotostock.com.

The original city, containing the royal acropolis and an enormous temple of the Storm God, was redeveloped and refortified, and is known as the Lower City. Archaeologists refer to the later extension to its south as the Upper City. Excavations of the latter have brought to light the foundations of 26 temples, with perhaps more yet to be discovered. The ‘new temples’ make it clear, according to their excavator Peter Neve, that Hattusa had the character of a sacred and ceremonial city. In fact the layout of the whole city can be seen as symbolizing the cosmic world-form of the Hittites, with the palace as the earthly world, the temple-city as the godly world, and the cult district lying in between providing the passage from the transient to the eternal. Subsequent excavations have revealed large complexes of grain silos and five reservoirs, which for a short time (before they silted up) supplied much of the city’s water.

Relief sculpture from the Hittite rock sanctuary Yazılıkaya, depicting what are believed to be the twelve gods of the Underworld.

© Lebazele/iStockphoto.com.

Tens of thousands of fragments of clay tablets from Hattusa’s palace and temple archives provide our chief source of written information on the history and civilization of the Hittite world, including matters of cult, law and relations with the other great empires of the age, especially Egypt. An intact bronze tablet unearthed near the Sphinx Gate throws important light on both the political geography and the history of the kingdom in the last decades of its existence. And an archive containing over 3,500 seal impressions has provided significant details about the genealogy of members of the Hittite royal family.

It was long believed that Hattusa’s end was abrupt and violent, but recent excavations have dispelled that impression. While there is certainly evidence of destruction, it seems it may have occurred only after the city had already been partly abandoned. The remains of the last period of Hattusa’s existence in the early 12th century BC indicate that most of the city’s valuable possessions had been systematically removed before the city fell, suggesting that the king and his court escaped, taking their most important items, including official records, with them. Presumably they were accompanied by a large military escort – but the rest of the population may well have been left to fend for themselves. When the city finally succumbed to marauding external forces it may already have been in an advanced state of decay.

The Lion Gate, the main entrance to Hattusa. Through this gateway vassal rulers and ambassadors of foreign kings would have passed, with all due ceremony, in preparation for their audience with the Hittite king.

© Jane Taylor (www.janetaylorphotos.com).

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.net. Thank you!